Sajid Javid sweeps into The Laughing Halibut, an old-fashioned fish and chip shop in Westminster, shakes my hand and sits down at a table towards the back of the café.
It’s early evening and Javid has been in Parliament to hear the Queen’s Speech. He fishes out his phone and says, ‘Look who I met yesterday.’ I steel myself for the grim possibility that he is about to show me a selfie with Dominic Raab, but instead I find myself looking at a photograph of Javid standing next to Bruce Springsteen.
I am a huge Springsteen fan and earlier this summer Blinded by the Light, the film based on my memoir Greetings from Bury Park, was released. It told the story of my teenage years in Luton in the 1980s and the transformative impact Springsteen’s music had on my life. The Chancellor and The Boss had apparently met at the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman the previous night.
‘I told him I was seeing you and he was really excited,’ he tells me. Now, this may have been a nakedly cynical attempt by the Chancellor to win favour with me, to which all I can say is it worked brilliantly.
Sajid Javid, 49, and I are around the same age and our lives have followed somewhat similar paths. Both born into working-class British-Pakistani families, we both wanted more from our lives than what was usually expected, we both followed careers unusual for those from our class and community and we both ended up marrying outside our race and religion. There are a few differences: only one of us became Chancellor and has a photograph of Morph as their WhatsApp profile. He might look like a clay stop-motion children’s TV character but Javid has impeccable taste in cinema. ‘I loved your film,’ he says as someone brings a plate of chips to share. ‘It reflected a lot of my own childhood and I was very emotional towards the end.’ Did you cry? I ask. ‘I didn’t but one of my daughters did,’ he reveals. ‘She said, “Dad I just understood a little more about what you have been talking about and what your mummy went through as well.”’
Javid’s father Abdul Ghani arrived in Britain in 1961 with a £1 note in his pocket and worked as a bus driver, factory worker and shop owner, while Javid’s mother Zubaida worked as a seamstress at home. The couple had five sons and the family lived first in Rochdale and then moved to Bristol. Their parents’ shop was often the target of racist attacks. ‘It was sprayed with the word “Paki” on the window about five or six times,’ he recalls, ‘and I would feel so sorry for my mum who would have to take it off. Watching your film brought it all back.’
The teenage Javid went to comprehensive school but he was already dreaming bigger dreams. ‘When I was 16 I started dreaming of working in The City,’ he says. ‘I had heard about this place where you did this thing called trading and if you were good at it, you could make a lot of money.’ His school wasn’t exactly encouraging — they advised him to get a job as a TV repairman. ‘They even got the forms for an apprenticeship at Radio Rentals,’ he says. But when he reached college he met a teacher who believed in him. ‘Charalambos Stamboulieh was the first person ever who said you have a gift,’ he says. His encouragement persuaded Javid to study economics and politics at the University of Exeter.
When I was a teenager I was inspired by Springsteen. Who was your Bruce, the person who made you think your dreams were possible? I ask. ‘I would say Margaret Thatcher had a big role to play,’ he replies. Hang on, I say, this was a woman who had talked about Britain being ‘swamped by people with a different culture’. You know she was talking about people like us don’t you? ‘If you look back on any leader you can always pick things you wouldn’t like,’ he responds. ‘But I look at what she achieved and what she did and those policies were what resonated with me. I would not be where I am now were it not for Margaret Thatcher.’
Thatcher was not the only woman who would change the life of the young Javid. While working in a summer job at Commercial Union in Bristol between college and university, he found himself working alongside a girl called Laura. ‘We were literally positioned next to each other,’ he says, ‘and it took me two weeks to pluck up the courage to ask, “Do you fancy a tuna sandwich?”’ Laura King accepted and a few weeks later she invited him and a few friends over to her place for a meal. ‘She made a pizza but it had bacon and pineapple and (having been raised Muslim) I couldn’t eat bacon,’ he recalls. ‘She felt gutted but she had not dated anyone who was Muslim, so it was a real eye-opener.’ The couple continued seeing each other as Javid went to university and then began a career in banking where he wound up earning a rumoured £3 million a year.
That must have been disorientating, I say — to come from so little and be earning so much. ‘I guess it’s to do with what you do with the earnings,’ he says. ‘So the first thing I did when I saved money was I bought my mum and dad a house. They were still living above the shop and I felt like I owed it to my parents for everything they had done.’ The house would have pleased his parents but not as much as if their son had married a fellow Pakistani Muslim. I was curious to know where he found the courage to defy his parents and marry a white non-Muslim. I did something similar but not until my late 30s, by which time my mother was close to her wits’ end about my unmarried state. ‘It took a number of years,’ he reveals. ‘We would have married earlier were it not for my parents. I kept saying you have got to meet her, she is not what you think.’
Javid left banking in 2009 and became a Conservative MP. In the past 10 years he has been, among other things, Culture Secretary, Business Secretary, Home Secretary and now, after a failed leadership bid, the Chancellor. On 1 November it will have been 100 days since Javid became the UK’s first British-Asian Chancellor. One consequence of coming from a working-class background, speaking from personal experience, is that you don’t grow up with the self-satisfied sense of entitlement that those born into privilege often have. It can also mean that even when you have ‘arrived’, you can still sometimes feel like you don’t truly belong. I ask if he ever gets imposter syndrome? ‘I often feel like an outsider,’ he admits, adding, ‘imposter is an interesting word, it could work.’
The political genius of characters like Boris Johnson is that they are deeply weird people with the ability to act a version of normal on television, whereas Javid is genuinely from a more normal background but can come across as a bit weird on television. Does he feel uncomfortable with the performance side of politics? ‘Yes, totally!’ he says. In September, Javid certainly put on a show at the Tory Party conference, speaking Punjabi and telling the crowd how proud his ‘mummy’ was to have seen ‘the first Asians to move into Downing Street’. At some point, he will also have to deliver his first budget. Budgets are not just about spending commitments — they are also theatrical performances — where the delivery is everything.
On television Javid often comes across as wooden, but unlike the current Prime Minister he hasn’t spent his entire life preparing and expecting to lead the country. ‘People — let’s call them the elite — the ones with the comfortable upbringing, who went to the best schools, they glide through life, they get second chances, they can afford to screw up, they always have the easy language on the tip of their tongues. Whereas people like me and you don’t get second chances, don’t have that easy language on your fingertips, haven’t got that funny anecdote to get out of that difficult situation, so you question your self-confidence.’ Does he still feel that now? ‘Sometimes.’
He then tells me that he also bumped into Hugh Grant at the premiere of The Irishman. ‘I recognised him and put my hand out and said lovely to meet you,’ Javid says, ‘and you know what he does? He refuses to shake my hand. He says, “I am not shaking your hand.” I am completely shocked. He said, “When you were Culture Secretary you didn’t support my friends in Hacked Off.” I think that is incredibly rude. I wonder if people like Hugh Grant think they are part of the elite and they look down on working-class people no matter what station they reach in life.’ My guess is that Grant was making a political point and was not being intentionally classist, but the fact Javid is so palpably furious is a reminder of how the personal and the political can be so intimately entwined. It is also a reminder of how rare it is for someone of Javid’s background to reach his current position. ‘You sort of feel grateful and privileged for where you are,’ he says, ‘but it’s quite unique, sadly, because when you look at the top of politics there are not that many people of ethnic minority backgrounds.’ Does he think there will be a black or ethnic minority Prime Minister in his lifetime? ‘Yes I do,’ he says firmly. ‘I really do and it could come from any party.’ And as for his future, he says that ‘if Chancellor is the last job I do in politics, I would be very happy.’
So does he think he has missed his moment to be Prime Minister? ‘Probably. I gave it a good shot.’ Sitting opposite Javid, I don’t believe for a second that he truly thinks he’s missed his chance. But our time is up; he has to race to another meeting. He gets up, shakes my hand and is gone. Three days later I will see from his Twitter feed that the Chancellor is in Washington meeting the US Treasury Secretary and commending the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal to his fellow Conservatives. And I will be left reflecting on the Sajid Javid I met in the chip shop who wields such power and influence, while still feeling like a fish out of water.